In her twenty-plus years as an author, Blair Bancroft has written approximately thirty books, twenty-two of them currently available as ebooks. Although the Regency era is her favorite, she also writes romantic suspense, mystery, thrillers, and steampunk with a paranormal futuristic in the not-too-distant future. Today Blair is here to tell us all about the hidden wonders of Britain’s waterways. As Grace Kone, she writes numerous how-to blogs aimed at beginning authors. Blair’s latest traditional Regency is Lady of the Lock. Visit Blair at her website and Grace at he blog.–AP
The Hidden Wonders of Britain’s Waterways
On a tour designed for Regency authors I fell in love—with the Regency Canal, instigating nearly a decade of research on England’s vast canal system, its demise, and modern resurrection. (The Regency Canal runs from Camden Lock to Little Venice, which includes along one side of Regency Park and past the London zoo.)
Water transport has always played an important role in an island nation criss-crossed by rivers, but in the eighteenth century the concept of linking every part of England to India, Asia, and the Americas solely by water exploded into the great Canal Age. Fine china, for example, could be off-loaded onto narrowboats in London and taken directly to distributors without being jostled about, and possibly broken, on wagons running over rough roads.
|Narrowboats Duke & Duchess on the Kennet & Avon Canal|
What is a narrowboat? Narrowboats can have a maximum length of 70 feet but cannot be more than 7 feet wide or they may have trouble with some of the locks in the British Waterways system. Nor would they be able to pass each other in the narrow canals. Narrowboats were England’s lifeline from the early eighteenth century through most of the nineteenth century. Some were still in use during World War II. But in England’s struggle to rebuild after the war, the canal system—replaced by both trains and modern roads—was neglected. The canals silted up; weeds grew where narrowboats had once brought goods into the heart of England.
And then an astounding thing happened. Volunteers decided to rehab the major canals. The back-breaking labor involved can only be imagined, but today England once again has a vast network of linked canals, now used for recreational boating.
|Narrowboats parked end-to-end on The Regency Canal|
Today, it’s technically possible for, say, a wealthy boater, who has his narrowboat tied up in front of his townhouse on the Regency Canal, to travel the width and breadth of England—and parts of Wales—as long as he has the strength and patience to navigate all the locks involved! I distinctly recall the sight of a woman attempting to jockey a narrowboat into a lock after her husband had leaped out to deal with opening the lock—a process that is much easier with three or four strong backs. She looked up at him and wailed, “You said this was going to be fun!”
Frankly, it’s only fun if you’re experienced at maneuvering through locks and have plenty of willing hands (or should I say bums?) to help shove the great gates open.
|Putting your bum to the lock|
But, oh, the joy of gliding along at 3mph through mile after mile of contrasting, but almost consistently idyllic, settings. Picturesque towns, farms, scenic landscapes, ducks, swans, heron, wildflowers. Total peace and quiet—even if there’s a road not far away, the noise doesn’t seem to penetrate the trees, shrubs, and brambles along the canal.
|Newbury at 8am on a Sunday morning|
There’s not even a whiff of manure as electric motors have replaced the horses who used to pull the narrowboats along the canals. The tow paths are now walking paths, used by locals, hiking enthusiasts, and boaters who want to stretch their legs for a bit. (Steering a narrowboat may be a “solo” activity, but for negotiating locks, the more hands the merrier.)
|Water entering a lock as it begins to open|
Which brings me to how I acquired these photos. It’s possible to take a narrowboat vacation without having to rent a narrowboat and do everything yourself (as happened to the poor woman mentioned above). I spent a week traveling by narrowboat from Newbury to Bath, through 72 locks and over at least two aqueducts, with no more responsibility than “putting my bum” to a lock gate. What is an aqueduct? Believe it or not, it’s a bridge strong enough to support a canal full of water and the narrowboats that travel over it. The Dundas Aqueduct is more than two hundred years old and still doing its job!
|The 200 year old Dundas Aqueduct|
|The canal the aqueduct supports|
A great debt is owed to the people who re-opened England’s canals and made this marvelous recreational opportunity available to all. It’s beautiful, tranquil, a place out of time, a true chance to “get away from it all.” (Unless you try to negotiate locks with just two people! Or absolutely can’t stand the idea of traveling at 3mph.)
A note to Americans who might be asking, “But how did you get to such an out-of-the-way place as Newbury?” The British rail system is in a class by itself. I walked off a British Airways flight, bought a train ticket at the desk straight in front of me, walked down a short flight of steps and boarded a train which, with only one change, took me to Newbury in less than two hours. A taxi took me to canalside where, oops, my narrowboat hadn’t turned up yet—they’d gotten stuck in a lock! So, yes, even the experts have trouble at times. But if you’d like to see where a narrowboat can take you, here’s a link to the hotelboats, Duke & Duchess. Give it a try.
For nearly a decade Miss Amanda Merriwether persists in an impossible dream. The object of her affections is heir to a dukedom; she, the daughter of a canal engineer,* a man considered little better than a tradesman. Her relationship with the Marquess of Montsale suffers enough blows to discourage the strongest will, yet even when she finally learns to spurn her long-time love, somehow a spark remains.
*A fictional version of the man who designed the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Dundas Aqueduct, mentioned in the article above.